Expressions & Sayings

~ G ~

Game for - willing; ready for
A dilution of the older and still current meaning: full of fight. This in turn was derived from 'game-cock', i.e. a cock bred for the game or sport of cock-fighting.
Game is up, the - success is no longer possible
Originally a hunting term with a quite different meaning: 'the game (i.e. quarry) is leaving its cover and the sport can begin'. Presumably, the expression changed from one about a beginning to one about an end because non-hunters assumed that game meant activity and up meant over.
Game not worth the candle, a - activity not worth the trouble or cost
From the translation of the French phrase le jeu n'en vaut la chandell, referring to a gambling session in which the amount of money at stake was not worth the price of the candle needed to provide illumination for the game. See burn the candle at both ends and not fit to hold a candle.
Game plan - plan of action
This expression originated in American football, used to describe a strategy for winning, worked out in advance. It dates from at least the 1940s, and by chance is actually recorded slightly earlier in a figurative use - for a plan of campaign in a non-sporting context - than in a literal one.
Garbage in garbage out
A term from typesetting and computing known by 1964 and sometimes abbreviated to GIGO, meaning that if you put incorrect data into a computer, however much you embellish it, what comes out will be meaningless and useless. In the wider sense it conveys the simple idea that you get back what you put in, reflected in the 16th century proverb, 'There comes nothing out of a sack but what was in it.'
Get down to brass tacks - deal with basic realities, hard facts or details of immediate practical importance
Door-knockers, drawer-handles and other fittings on wooden furniture are often made of brass because of its strength and good appearance. In fabric shops a strip of this metal, a yard or metre in length, is often set along the edge of the counter so that material can easily be measured. An alternative to this used to be - and sometimes still is - two brass nails set a certain distance apart. After a customer had selected a fabric, the sales assistant would suggest getting down (one version of the phrase has 'coming down') to the brass tacks to work out the practical details of measurement and price.
...There have been other explanations, the most plausible of which refers to the use of brass tacks in the final stage of upholstering furniture, but a high-street shopkeeper's phrase is more likely to have passed into general use than a specialist craftsman's.
Get down to the nitty-gritty - get to the basics of something
The origin of this is somewhat unpleasant and a little unexpected. It seems to derive from the nits found in unclean pubic hair plus the tiny, gritty pieces of dried faeces found in unwashed peri-anal hair. These are hard to remove, the best way to get rid of them being to shave off the hair and thoroughly clean the infected area - i.e. get down to the nitty-gritty.
...The phrase is also sometimes linked to a supposed 18th century slave traders' expression for the debris left at the bottom of a slave ship after a voyage. Perhaps this debris consisted of the above-described matter?
Get it in the neck
See Stick one's neck out.
Get one's back up - make one angry
From the action of a cat, which arches its back when angry.
Get one's dander up - get into a temper
The phrase has origins in Dutch, where op donderen means to burst into a sudden rage. This in turn, comes from donder - 'thunder.'
Get one's goat - annoy one
A 20th century Americanism said to have originated in the practice of stabling a goat as a soothing mascot with a highly-strung thoroughbred racehorse. The horse could be made fractious and prevented from winning if its goat was taken away unscrupulously.
Get out of bed on the wrong side - be bad tempered, grumpy
The wrong side of the bed is the left. According to a superstition that goes back to Roman times, it is unlucky to get out of bed on the left side because that is where evil spirits dwell and to do so means their influence will then be with you through your waking hours. Naturally, if one is expecting to suffer the whim of malevolent spirits by inadvertently getting out on the wrong side of a bed, they cannot be blamed for being a little grumpy.
Get/Give the bird - receive or show derision
From theatrical slang; originally 'get the big bird', i.e. the goose, which hisses as people do when they make traditional sound of disapproval at a bad public performance.
Get the bit between one's teeth - act without restraint
A metaphor from horsemanship. The bit is the mouthpiece of a horse's bridle and acts on the side of the mouth in response to the pulling of the reins. If the horse gets the bit between its teeth so that the bit can no longer hurt its mouth it becomes difficult or impossible to control.
Get the sack - be dismissed from employment
Journeymen mechanics used to provide their own tools and carry them from job to job in a bag ('get the bag' and 'get the canvas' are earlier versions of this expression). Perhaps an employer looked after the bag or sack and literally handed it back to a workman when he was dismissed.
Gift of the gab
See Blow the gaff.
Gild the lily - add unnecessary ornamentation to something already beautiful in itself
An established misquotation from Shakespeare's King John, IV, 2, lines 11 and 16: 'To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily .../Is wasteful and ridiculous excess'.
Gilt-edged - of the highest quality and reliability
Now usually coupled with such nouns as guarantee, security, promise, etc., this term was introduced towards the end of the 19th century to describe especially safe government securities. They were so called because the splendid certificates issued to holders of the stock were ornamented with gilt edges. The term is still a stock exchange one as well as being in more general metaphorical use.
Gird up one's loins - prepare oneself for strenuous activity
A biblical expression (e.g. I Kings, 18: 46) for the action of tucking the end of a long robe into one's girdle or belt so as to be able to move the legs more freely when running, working etc. To gird is to fasten by means of a girdle; the loins are that part of the body between waist and hips.
Give a dog a bad name
A catchphrase meaning that if one has acquired a bad reputation one will never be able to lose it. The full proverb is 'Give a dog an ill name and hang him', which can be interpreted in two ways: 'If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you will destroy him' and 'If someone has got himself a bad name he is as good as destroyed'. There is also another proverb: 'He that has an ill name is half hanged'.
Give a wide berth - avoid; keep at a safe distance
A metaphor from seamanship. A berth is, among other things, a place where a ship is at anchor or at a wharf. A wide berth is plenty of room, especially important in former days for a ship swinging at anchor.
Give one a break - give one an opportunity; let someone off
This expression possibly comes from a piece of underworld slang. A break was an interruption in a street performer's act during which he would pass round the hat for the audience to show their appreciation. The term was taken up by the vagrant and criminal community and by the 19th century a break had come to mean a collection or whip-round made for a felon on his release from prison. The lucky man had been given a break; he had not been left to face the world completely penniless. It is also possible that the source could be the poolroom or snooker hall, as detailed in a good/bad/lucky break.
Give one's right arm for - sacrifice a great deal for something
See Cost an arm and a leg.
Give the thumbs up/down - approve (or disapprove
According to contemporary observers such as Juvenal and Horace, the spectators at ancient Roman gladiatorial contests used to be called upon to determine whether or not a beaten gladiator should be killed. If their response was favourable, they kept their thumbs clenched in their fists; if not, they turned their thumbs out. This is not what the modern expression says, but it appears to be the origin.
Give up the ghost - die, stop working
In this sense, ghost is the obsolete word for 'soul' or 'spirit' and the fact that it is given up implies that it has an existence separate from and outliving the human body. The phrase is found frequently in the Bible to mean 'die', though in modern use it is jocularly applied to a piece of equipment, occasionally to a person, that ceases to function.
Gives one the willies - arouses nervousness, uneasiness, fear
The origins of this phrase are shadowy and possibly go back a long way. It has been suggested that the word willies comes from 'willow tree', of which the word willy is an old form. The willow has long been a symbol of grief and mourning, and there are many references to it in English literature. The saying 'She is in her willows ...' was used of a woman who had lost her lover or spouse. More than one authority has pointed out that Giselle, the heroine of the 19th century ballet of that name, is possessed by the Wilis, or spirits of beautiful young girls who have died before their wedding day and who dance to express their anger at death. The current sense, however, is not one of grief but of apprehension or nervousness.
Gnashing of teeth - expression of frustration or anger
Found frequently in the Bible, especially the New Testament (e.g. Matthew, 8: 12), as an expression of despair or mourning.
Go AWOL - take leave without permission
An acronym for absent without leave. During WWI, it was used to describe a soldier who was not present for roll-call but was not yet classified as a deserter. At this time, the four letters were pronounced individually but, sometime before the Second World War, the pronunciation 'aywol' became current.
Go back to the drawing-board - start planning all over again
From the caption to a New Yorker cartoon during World War II, showing a newly invented aircraft exploding and disintegrating while still on the ground. Its designer, apparently unmoved by such spectacular disaster, is saying: 'Ah well, back to the old drawing-board'.
Go bald-headed - act impetuously, without restraint
The colourful story of the Marquis of Granby who led a cavalry charge at Warburg (1760) despite having lost his wig - or, better still, incensed at having it shot off - may well be true but it is unlikely to be responsible for this expression, which is not recorded until nearly a century later. It is an Americanism originating in the rather more mundane idea of a person acting in unseemly haste by rushing out of the house without even putting a hat on - an unusual breach of etiquette in former times.
Go berserk - become frenzied
A berserk(er) - there are various other spellings - was a Norse warrior renowned for the fury of his fighting. His name came from an Icelandic word probably signifying the bear-skin (bear-sark) or coat he wore; he was reputed to fight without armour. The word is now usually an adjective.
Go by the board - be discarded, lost, abandoned or ignored
Board was a nautical term for the side of a ship. Anything that went 'by the board', i.e. overboard, was therefore lost or liable to be.
Go Dutch
See Dutch courage.
Go for broke
To go for in this sense is to make a choice with an element of risk. Broke is the familiar word for 'bankrupt'. The whole term therefore means to risk everything, including the possibility of total loss, in the hope of winning. The expression is from gambling.
Go great guns
The military term for cannon or any ordnance mounted for firing was 'great guns', as distinct from small guns that were hand-held. Figuratively, a wind that blows great guns is violent and noisy, like cannon, and anything that is going great guns is enjoying a roaring success, carrying all before it.
...To stick to one's guns, originally another military term, meaning to keep firing and not abandon the guns, now means to adhere to one's position (principles, beliefs, opinions, etc.) under attack.
Go haywire - begin to function erratically (applied to things); become seriously upset or crazy (applied to people)
Haywire (originally an American word) is used for binding bales of hay. If bound tightly round a bale, the wire may whip back sharply and dangerously when it is cut to release the hay for use. It may also become entangled in the baling-machine during the actual process of baling. This unpredictability explains its appearance in the familiar expression.
...There is a less satisfactory explanation in terms of an earlier American slang use of haywire to mean 'makeshift', from the idea of making a temporary repair with a piece of wire. There may be some link between such a haywire repair and something which needs repair being said to have gone haywire, i.e. to have become in need of haywire.
Go off half-cocked - act before one is fully prepared
The hammer of 17th century flintlock muskets was often very ornate and resembled a rooster or cock. To fully cock a gun was to prepare it for firing. The half-cock position was a 'safe' position to which the hammer or cock was drawn to permit access to the priming pan to charge and load the weapon. Pulling the trigger of a flintlock musket at half-cock will not fire the weapon. The hammer, which contains the flint, will not strike the frizzen with sufficient force to produce a spark and the primer charge in the pan will not ignite. This will only happen when the hammer is fully cocked, that is, completely drawn back.
...In the heat of battle, it was easy to forget to fully cock one's musket after loading it and go off half-cocked, with the result that nothing would happen. This, of course, was embarrassing and potentially dangerous.
Go the whole hog - do something in a thoroughgoing way
This popular expression appears to have originated in the USA, where hog has always been commoner than 'pig', and is likely to be related to the slang use of hog as a word for a dime, the same word having been used earlier in England as slang for a shilling. The name came from the depiction of a hog on one side of the coin. If this is so, the expression would have originally meant to spend the whole coin at once, a boldness echoed in the modern meaning.
...Alternatively, there is evidence from American butchers' slang that customers were invited to 'go' the whole hog, i.e. buy the whole pig, which was cheaper than buying piecemeal. This provides the most convincing explanation of the term.
Go/Put through the hoop - undergo or make to undergo a test (often ordeal or punishment)
From the use of hoops in the circus ring, where animals or acrobats show their prowess by jumping through them.
Go to hell in a handbasket - deteriorate rapidly
This phrase originated in America in the early 20th century. A handbasket is simply a basket with a handle. Something carried in a handbasket goes wherever it is going without much resistance.
Go west - be lost or destroyed; die
This phrase was popularised by the First World War; because the Western Front generally ran north/south, with British troops facing east, a dead or injured soldier who was transferred from the scene of fighting to behind the lines would go west. But the idea is older than that and is based on a common literary comparison between death and the setting of the sun in the west.
...There are also references in literature to people going west to be hanged at Tyburn, which was used for executions from the 12th century until 1783 and which in those days lay well to the west of London, near what is now Marble Arch.
Golden age - most flourishing period
A direct translation of a Latin phrase used by classical poets to define the first age of human history, a period said to have been one of ideal harmony, innocence, prosperity and happiness, free from all strife. The modern meaning is narrower and largely to do with success.
Golden calf - false ideal; money as an object of worship
Chapter 22 of Exodus tells how the Israelites, after leaving Egypt and during Moses' protracted communion with God on Mount Sinai, made a golden calf to worship. On his return, Moses, angered by their idolatry, broke the stone tablets on which the finger of God had inscribed the Law, and God plagued the Israelites for their apostasy. In modern use, the golden calf has become a metaphor for an object of improper veneration, especially material wealth.
Gone for a Burton - ruined, destroyed
Generally agreed to have been RAF slang for 'dead' or 'missing', originating in World War II, and referring to Burton's beer. The simplest explanation is that to go for a Burton was, first of all, no more than to go for a drink, and that it was later used as an understatement when someone was killed or failed to return from a flying mission. The fact that many airmen crashed in the sea, known as 'the drink', may give this explanation added point. The current and more general meaning emerged later from this sense of loss.
...There was a postwar advertisement for Burton's beer showing a football team photograph with one player missing and a caption explaining that he had gone for a Burton. If this advertisement also appeared prewar, it was almost certainly the origin of the RAF usage that led to the modern meaning. If not, it was merely capitalising on what had by then become a well-known phrase, which is now used of things as well as people.
Gone to pot
See All to pot.
Gone to the dogs
See Dog's life.
Good books
See In one's black books.
Good/Bad/Lucky break - a good/bad/unlucky chance, opportunity
The most likely origin seems to come from pool or snooker, though the source suggested for give one a break is also a possibility here. In pool and snooker, the game begins with the balls arranged in a set position. The first player then uses the cue ball to break this formation. The 'break' is largely a matter of chance, the skill coming into subsequent play. With a good break a skilful player can go on to pocket many of the balls and build towards a winning position; a bad break gives the other player an opportunity to play. A lucky break is easily understood as an extension of the basic idea.
Good innings (have a) - die in ripe old age; leave a post after a long or successful period
In cricket, the time that a batsman spends in play is called an innings; if he plays well or scores highly, he has a good innings. Often, though not necessarily, a good innings is also a long one, either because many runs are scored or because it keeps one's side in play, so enabling others to score, preventing the other side from coming into play, or forcing a draw in preference to a defeat.
Good riddance to bad rubbish
Catchphrase expressing satisfaction at being rid of something or someone unpleasant. Coined by Dickens in Dombey and Son (1847-8), chapter 44.
Good Samaritan - charitable person, especially one who helps someone in distress
Speaking of the need to love one's neighbour and answering the question 'Who is my neighbour?', Christ told the parable of a Jewish man who was beaten and robbed, then ignored by two holy men passing by, and finally rescued by a man from Samaria who gave first aid and cared for the victim at an inn before going on his way, leaving money for further assistance. In view of the traditional hatred of Jews for Samaritans, the parable teaches that good neighbourliness is independent of national or religious differences. The story is in Luke, 10: 30-7.
Good wine needs no bush - something that is good needs no advertising
The bush in this sense of 'advertisement' is the bunch of ivy that used to be hung up as a sign outside a wine-seller's. The Greek god of wine, Dionysius, was specially associated with ivy and is often portrayed in art and literature wearing an ivy-wreath. According to mythology his mother, while pregnant with him, was visited by Zeus and consumed by the flames emanating from the deity; the baby was preserved because a thick shoot of ivy suddenly appeared and wound itself into a screen that protected him from the heat.
...Both this symbolism and the practice of hanging out shop signs, the vestiges of which still include the barber's pole, were introduced to Britain by the Romans.
Goody two-shoes - a self-righteous, smugly virtuous person
This comes from the title of a rather twee and moralistic nursery tale called The History of Goody Two-Shoes, which is thought to have been written by Oliver Goldsmith, and which in 1765 was published by John Newberry, one of the earliest London publishers of children's stories. Goody owned only one shoe; when she was given a pair of them, she was so pleased that she showed them to everybody, saying "Two shoes".
...In those days, Goody was a common nickname for married women, being short for Goodwife. The character's 'real' name was Margery Meanwell and she lived in Mouldwell.
Gordian knot
Gordius, a peasant, became king of Phrygia (now in Turkey) in obedience to an oracle that decreed that the first person to drive to the temple of Zeus in a wagon should be crowned. He dedicated his wagon to Zeus and yoked it to a beam in the temple with a knot of great complexity. Alexander the Great, in the course of his crusade to the east in the 4th century BC, learnt of an oracle that whoever loosed the knot would become master of Asia. He cut it with a stroke of his sword, then went on to conquer the whole of the Persian Empire. The story is usually thought to be legend, though some scholars believe it could be true.
...The Gordian knot (sometimes with a small g) remains a popular metaphor for a complicated difficulty. To cut the Gordian knot is to resolve that difficulty with a decisive act that ignores the subtleties it seems to invite.
Gordon Bennett
This mild oath is usually traced back to James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918), the editor of the New York Herald who commissioned the journalist/explorer Henry Stanley to search for the British explorer David Livingstone in central Africa. Bennett spent much of his life in Paris, where there is an avenue named after him, and was a colourful character of whom many picturesque anecdotes are told. He was associated with polo and horse-racing, gave trophies for motor races and spent money freely: he is reputed to have got through a fortune of tens of millions of dollars and to have bought a restaurant and cable company on the spur of the moment for his personal convenience.
...Why an American in Paris should have given his name to an English expletive has never been explained. There is an alternative, though duller, possibility: 'Gordon' may well be no more than an evasion of 'Gawd!' with 'Bennett' as a purely arbitrary addition, the whole expression being unrelated to a specific person.
Grand Guignol
The name of a small theatre in Montmarte, Paris, which specialised in short, gruesome and melodramatic plays in a style that therefore became known as (Grand) Guignol. Anything now described as Grand Guignol is akin to a horror story, often involving violent death. Guignol was originally the name of the main character in an 18th century French puppet show similar to Punch and Judy.
Grand Poo-Bah, the - one who holds a number of offices or who exhibits an inflated self-regard
This comes from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, which debuted in 1885 and skewered the then-current rage in Britain for all things Japanese. Set in the fictional small Japanese town of Titipu, The Mikado tells the story of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, Yum-Yum, his fetching ward, and Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel who is actually the son of the Mikado (Emperor) in disguise. One of the other characters is Poo-Bah, who holds the exalted offices of Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Buckhounds and Groom of the Back Stairs, as well as the handy catchall post of Lord High Everything Else.
...Lord High Everything Else was such a brilliant summation of the self-important puffery of bureaucracy that Poo-Bah (and its variant poobah) immediately became a popular mocking synonym for someone who believes themself more important than anyone else, especially someone in high office.
Grasp the nettle - face a problem with determination
The nettle, which causes so much discomfort when lightly touched, has been used for centuries for its medicinal and nutritious properties. In one of his poems (1745), John Gay advises, 'Nettle's tender shoots, to cleanse the blood; and John Wesley in his Primitive Physick (1747) urges 'Take an ounce of nettle juice'. But how did the intrepid cottagers gather this stinging plant? Aaron Hill's poem, The Nettle's Lesson (1743), tells the secret: 'Tender-handed stroke a nettle, And it stings you for your pains; Grasp it like a man of mettle, And it soft as silk remains.'
Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the
This expression, which means that another set of circumstances or lifestyle always seems preferable to one's own, refers to the habit of grazing animals of grazing through the fence separating them from the next field.
Grass roots, the - ordinary voters
In American mining terminology this denoted the level of soil beneath the earth's surface. It was then adopted as a political metaphor to signify rural voters with old-fashioned virtues in contrast to city folk cut off from them. In Britain, it has no rural connotations and merely distinguishes ordinary voters from professional politicians or commentators.
Grass widow - woman whose husband is temporarily away from her
The expression goes back to the 16th century, when it was applied to an unmarried woman (i.e. one like a widow in having no husband) who was sexually promiscuous or had a child. Grass may have implied furtive sexual activity in a field or hayloft.
Gravy train - any easy and lucrative way means of obtaining money
By the beginning of the 20th century gravy was being used to mean money that had been easily acquired, or that was extra in some way, such as a bonus or tip, in the same way that gravy is an extra on top of the basics of a meal. It could also be used for money obtained through extortion or other illicit means. A gravy train was US railroad slang for an easy run where the pay was good. This was adopted into general speech in the 1920s.
Great I am, the - a conspicuously self-important person, (jocularly) the boss
God's definition of himself as self-existent: 'And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you' (Exodus, 3: 14).
Great Scott!
An exclamation of surprise or disgust, originally American and said to be a reference to General Winfield Scott (1786-1866). Those who identify it as an expression of admiration point to his popularity after his victorious Mexican campaign of 1847. Others believe it to have been originally ironic and to refer to his notorious fussiness and pomposity as a presidential candidate.
Great unwashed, the - the broad mass of people
First found in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford (1830), though this phrase is said to have been used earlier in speeches by Edward Burke at the time of the French Revolution and by Lord Brougham (1778-1868), a lawyer and politician. As a contemptuous term for the lower orders, it was perhaps originally restricted to the private audiences of the upper ones. It is now jocular.
Great white hope
This was originally a nickname given to James Jeffries, a white boxer defeated by the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, in 1910. Users are now often unaware of the racist connotations, using 'white' as if it were the equivalent of 'shining' (as in 'shining example') or without any idea of its meaning.
Green-eyed monster
See Green with envy.
Green with envy - very envious
Before Shakespeare, a green complexion (i.e. pale and sickly) was associated with other things besides envy: these included fear, ill-humour and illness. In a famous passage Iago warns Othello to 'beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on' (III, 3, lines 169-71), a metaphor from the green-eyed cat family which is prone to play with (mock) its victims as a cat plays with a mouse. Though green has continued to have other associations, notably immaturity and gullibility, it is envy that now predominates.
Grin like a Cheshire cat
The simile existed long before it was popularised by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in which Alice asks why the Duchess's cat is grinning and is told 'It's a Cheshire cat, that's why'. Explanations of it are too numerous to mention, but do not appear to have included the most obvious one: that a cat which lives in a notable cheese-making county is bound to grin at the thought that there will never be any shortage of milk.
Grind the faces of the poor - ill-treat the poor, especially by keeping them in poverty
Still sometimes heard as an evocative political phrase, though not as often as it was in days gone by when it was thought to epitomise the attitude of employers and landowners. It is an ancient Hebrew expression that passed into English by way of Isaiah, 3: 15: 'What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts'.
Grist to the mill
'Grist' is corn that is to be ground; grist to the mill thus used to mean business providing profit, but it now more usually means work that has to be done.
Grub Street - having the nature of literary hack-work
According to Dr Johnson's Dictionary (1755) this was originally the name of a London street 'much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet'. It was renamed Milton Street in the 19th century and is near the Barbican Centre.
Guinea pig - person (or thing) used in an experiment
From the use of this animal in scientific research, especially using vivisection.
Gung-ho - excessively enthusiastic or zealous
From the Chinese for 'work together'. During World War II, the term was adopted as a motto by a US marine division whose colonel knew it from his period of attachment to the Chinese army as an observer. He may not have known that the words are short for an expression meaning Chinese Industrial Cooperatives Society.
...The term became more generally known as the title of a later film about the marines. Thus, gung-ho became associated with tough adventurism. In general use, it now implies a dangerous insensitivity, especially when applied to political attitudes or military mood.
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